I imagined that a trip to Antarctica would be snow and ice and more snow and ice. But instead, when I set foot on the continent for the first time this past January, on a sailing organized by luxury tour operator Abercrombie & Kent, I disembarked from a bobbing inflatable Zodiac onto rocky beach surrounded by brown volcanic landscapes.
The scene might have been Hawai‘i were it not for a greeting party of Adélie and gentoo penguins set against a backdrop of glaciers and icebergs. Dozens of adult penguins bugled at each other as they waddled into the Antarctic Sound on fishing expeditions—or perhaps cooling off from Southern Hemisphere summer temperatures that were in the high 30s—while their chicks stayed ashore, awaiting their meals. It was noisy, smelly, buzzing, and thrilling.
Such amazing moments are among the many reasons for venturing as far south as you can get, to the seventh continent. True to my initial stereotype, Antarctica is full of ice and monolithic icebergs. There are also Weddell seals that live farther south than any other mammal and huge leopard seals that like to feed on penguins. Depending on the polar class of your ship, you may also sail through or land on ice floes in a place where the only humans around are those who reside at country-flagged research stations such as the U.S.’s Amundsen-Scott. Antarctica is one of the most barren and awe-inspiring places I have ever been.
Even on a modern cruise ship, Antarctica is not an easy trip. Travel typically includes several flights to get down to Ushuaia, in Tierra del Fuego at the bottom of Argentina, and additional hotel nights precruise if you fly first to Buenos Aires; you may have to cruise a full week before you actually get to the continent. Getting there in most cases involves sailing the notorious Drake Passage, so rough at times it’s nicknamed the “Drake Shake” (fortunately on our sailing it was more like the calmer “Drake Lake”).
Regular wake-up calls before 7 a.m. so you can witness penguins and other creatures before exploring the coast by Zodiac in the afternoon, bundling up in polar jackets and boots, and slippery wet landings are all part of the action-packed Antarctica expedition experience. There is plenty of down time too, which travelers can use to recover from all the activity and to reflect on what they’ve seen.
Minimizing your impact on the fragile environment of Antarctica is a requirement for visiting, set by the Antarctic Treaty. Visitors must follow the rules, which include remaining on approved paths and refraining from disturbing the animals or stepping on the precious moss, lichen, or seagrass that grows during the summer.
But it’s all worth it.
Add South Georgia to your White Continent itinerary and you will land among scenes dominated by king penguins the size of three- or four-year-old humans. At St. Andrews Bay, my fellow cruise passengers and I found ourselves mingling in a colony of 100,000 nesting pairs stretching far into the distance. Despite being an experienced adventure traveler, I was completely gobsmacked by what I was witnessing.
Why now is the best time to plan and book an Antarctica sailing
There are many compelling reasons to visit Antarctica now. For one, if you have an expert team of naturalists, biologists, geologists, historians, and ornithologists onboard your ship, as we did with A&K, you will gain a greater understanding of the effects of climate change and the dire warnings presented by the rapidly melting Antarctica ice sheet.
For another, a new flock of expedition ships has launched that are more ecofriendly than their predecessors and also a lot more comfortable than the converted icebreakers of yore. You can now do real luxury in Antarctica, without sacrificing the adventure aspect of the journey—these sleek vessels are able to go faster and farther than ever before.
The fact that there are now more ships in the region means that the season has been expanded to stretch from late October into March, which allows passengers to have a wide array of experiences depending on the month they visit as the continent’s ice melts and moves. For instance, my January trip featured such a multitude of penguins because we traveled during nesting season (mid-December to early February). October and November are spring mating season. As temperatures lower toward the Arctic fall (mid-February to March), birds retreat to the sea.
If you are thinking of cruising in Antarctica this coming season (or even the next), you’d be wise to book now for the best choice of cabins and itineraries. There is huge pent-up demand after the pandemic shut down sailings for much of 2020 and 2021.
The best ships and travel companies for sailing Antarctica
Here’s a rundown of some of the top ship options, tour operators, and travel companies for traveling to Antarctica and what makes each stand out.
Atlas Ocean Voyages’ World Navigator
Best for inclusions
New line Atlas Ocean Voyages debuted its 184-passenger polar-class World Navigator last season, and this year adds sister ship World Traveller. On both, you embark on Zodiacs, paddleboards, and kayaks from a mud room, and you can get a massage in L’Occitane’s first seagoing spas. If you stay in a top suite, you’ll receive butler service. While most new ships steer toward contemporary decor, here the theme is 1940s splendor.
9 nights from $10,399 per person
Hurtigruten’s Roald Amundsen and Fridtjof Nansen
Best for staying active
While Norwegian line Hurtigruten’s Roald Amundsen and Fridtjof Nansen (both named for Norwegian explorers) don’t make pretenses at luxury, the line is expert at polar travel and the ships reflect that, including their environmental sensibility. Both ships lower their CO2 footprint with hybrid-electric engines that allow them to run for several hours on batteries, reducing emissions by 20 percent. Carrying up to 500 passengers in Antarctica, the line gets creative with activities that include snowshoeing and an opportunity to camp overnight on the ice. Kids age seven and up are welcome aboard.
15 nights from $10,038 per person (up to half-off for kids)
Lindblad Expeditions’ National Geographic Endurance and National Geographic Resolution
Best for onboard extras
Nestle under the duvet of a comfortable double bed and gaze at the stars on Lindblad Expeditions’ new 126-passenger National Geographic Endurance or National Geographic Resolution. The ships are equipped with a pair of geodesic glass igloos on the top deck where guests are invited to overnight. With a cutting-edge X-Bow design and state-of-the-art engines, the ships also reduce key emissions by more than 70 percent.
13 nights, from $15,380 per person
Ponant’s Le Commandant Charcot
Best for sustainability
French line Ponant’s 270-passenger Le Commandant Charcot can sail up to eight hours on zero-emissions energy. The rest of the time, the luxury ship runs on cleaner liquified natural gas. The icebreaker’s ice-class rating allows it to go further than most other ships sailing in Antarctica. It proved that in February by breaking a record in reaching the closest geographic latitude to the South Pole (in the Ross Sea).
11 nights from $18,330 per person
Ponant’s Le Lyrial (with Abercrombie & Kent)
Best for learning itinerary
Abercrombie & Kent has 30 years’ experience in Antarctica and it shows. The company’s annual December and January sailings on Ponant’s upscale Le Lyrial are limited to 199 guests and staffed by one of the most experienced teams of nature experts in the business. Turn it into a family adventure with kids ages seven and older welcome onboard (with reduced pricing for those up to 18). An 18-day “Antarctica, South Georgia and Falklands” photo-themed sailing includes additional lectures with professional photographers and generous hands-on advice whether you have an iPhone or the latest camera equipment with the biggest telephoto lens.
17 nights from $19,995 per person
Best for most-anticipated new ship
The 264-passenger Seabourn Venture, Seabourn’s first purpose-built expedition ship, is set to debut in Antarctica this year, adding to the market luxurious suites with verandas, elevated cuisine, high design, and high-touch attention to guests from a 26-person expedition team that will lead expeditions by Zodiac, kayak, and submarine.
9 nights from $13,199 per person
Best for fun perks
Australian brand Scenic’s posh “discovery yacht,” the 228-passeger Scenic Eclipse is big on amenities—there are two six-passenger Airbus helicopters for flightseeing, landings, and heli-skiing treks; a six-passenger submarine for exploring under the sea; a yoga studio; French and sushi restaurants; and butler service. When you are not busy with all that, belly up to the 110-bottle whiskey bar.
12 nights from $17,395 per person
Silversea and Quark Expeditions
Best for fly-in options
There is a shortcut to Antarctica that allows for a quick trip and avoids the dreaded Drake Passage. Ultraluxury line Silversea and adventure line Quark Expeditions have itineraries where you fly from Punta Arenas, Chile, to King George Island, one of the South Shetland Islands. From there, it’s a relatively short sail to the Antarctic Peninsula. Silversea does the trip with business-class air and butler-serviced suites on its 144-passenger expedition ship Silver Explorer. Quark does its minus the over-the-top luxury on the classic 128-passenger Ocean Adventurer.
6 nights from $17,200 per person (Silversea); 7 nights from $11,444 per person (Quark)
Viking Octantis and Viking Polaris
Best for comfortable cruising
Viking Expeditions (part of the larger Viking cruise company that also operates a river and ocean line) is new in Antarctica with the 378-passenger, polar-class Viking Octantis and Viking Polaris, ships that combine the comforts of traditional cruising with expedition adventures. While getting on a bobbing Zodiac can be challenging, Viking has developed a way for guests to board in the Hangar, an enclosed marina, to make it much easier. A pair of six-passenger submarines allows guests to see under the sea.
12 nights from $13,995 per person
>> Next: The Science of Antarctica May Change How You Cruise